Supplements users are some of the most well-read and well-educated shoppers, and yet they are still some of the most confused. And who can blame them, considering the barrage of mixed messages they receive? Natural products are touted as miracle cures one week and hazards the next. That's why retailers have to be resilient. For example, when new research breaks demonstrating the power of a supplement to prevent or heal, that's the time for retailers to read up, stock up and spread the word. On the other hand, when research throws the safety or efficacy of a product into question, retailers must be poised and ready to respond, both in their stores and out in the world.
Of course, figuring out the best way to get the word out may take some trial and error. For some retailers, print materials are the key, while others find radio spots drive customer traffic. Whatever the case, in an industry that is already under tight scrutiny, using media outlets as a means of education and damage control is a retailer's best line of defense.
Sometimes it doesn't take much to undermine the credibility of an herb or supplement. Take the case of St. John's wort, a longtime top seller whose ability to treat mild to moderate depression was first demonstrated as early as the 1980s, and whose power to treat the condition equally or better than standard antidepressants has been confirmed by numerous well-designed clinical trials over the ensuing years. But when a widely publicized study emerged in 2001 that cast a shadow over the promise of St. John's wort, consumers panicked. Critics noted that not only had the study looked solely at whether St. John's wort could improve severe depression, not the mild to moderate forms for which it is typically recommended, the study had been funded by Pfizer, maker of Zoloft, one of the most widely prescribed antidepressants. Regardless of these facts, sales of the herb drooped, much to retailers' dismay.
"You have to be in a constant state of readiness as a retailer," said Sylvia Tawse, president of The Fresh Ideas Group, a public relations and marketing firm in Boulder, Colo. "What that means is each of your store managers and department managers knows that if a negative story breaks in the media, there is a clear plan for developing a credible fact sheet and a company position on the issue, ideally by the start of business the following day." Start by designating who in your store is responsible for gathering information, who will create a company statement and who will counsel team members or retail employees on what they can and cannot say. "Ultimately, you don't want your staff dishing out opinions; you want them to serve as a liaison between the customer and credible information. That is the best defense against bad press," said Tawse.
Serving as a conduit between customers and reliable information can also spill into the world outside your store. "When a big story hits, we work with our public relations firm to draft up a press release stating our company's position on the subject," said Don Summerfield, vice president of integrative medicine for the Boulder, Colo.-based natural pharmacy Pharmaca. "By sending that release out to local media outlets, we let them know we have experts in the field who are available for comment and interviews. And they do call."
Distinguishing staff members as experts in the eyes of the community can go a long way toward establishing customer confidence and loyalty. Peter Brodhed, a certified nutritionist and owner of Brighter Day Natural Foods in Savannah, Ga., has done so by giving hundreds of free lectures over the years, as well as advertising on National Public Radio. "For the money it is the best radio advertising for us," said Janie Brodhed, Peter's wife and co-owner. "It targets the kind of customer that shops at independent natural foods stores and gives us credibility in the eyes of our community."
Radio may be a great vehicle for advertising, but it can also be an ideal platform for education. Ideally, retailers want to target health-related talk radio shows dedicated to keeping the public up to date on current information. However, even having a qualified staff member make an occasional guest appearance on a regular radio show can have dramatic results. "Whenever our staff nutritionist visits a radio show to talk about a specific supplement or health condition, a bunch of people come in wanting more information," said Serena Frye, health and beauty department manager at Strawberry Fields natural market in Urbana, Ill.
Spread the word
Another way to make sure you have a voice of authority, both inside and outside your store, is by creating a Web site, newsletter, custom magazine or other educational literature that will keep customers informed. And you don't have to stop there: If you really want to encourage consumer knowledge about supplements, think big. "What you have to do if you are a retailer is not only protect your own reputation, but help protect the category and the right to have alternative remedies sold freely on retail shelves. The best way to do that is get involved in and invest in your trade association. Supporting the National Nutritional Foods Association is incredibly important," said Tawse.
Essentially, the best way to manage consumer knowledge about supplements—both good and bad—is with a three-layered approach. The bottom or base layer is making sure your staff is always armed and ready to supply customers with credible and up-to-the-minute answers and information. The middle layer is using in-store offerings such as literature, a reference library, lectures and credentialed experts to ensure your store is seen as a credible resource. And at the top should be the message you put out into the world through local and national media outlets and industry associations. "We all have to work a little harder to protect and earn consumer trust, but the payoff is worth it," said Frye.
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Linda Knittel is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. She is the author of User's Guide to Natural Remedies for Depression (Basic Health Publications, 2003).
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 6/p. 58, 66